Recent Flooding crisis a timely reminder of the importance of proper planning – BREEN.

December 2nd, 2009 - Pat Breen

Speaking during the Debate on the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009, Deputy Breen said “Like my colleague, Deputy Clune, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. The recent flooding crisis has made it extremely important. We have witnessed the worst flooding in the history of the State. It is a timely reminder of the importance of proper planning. Lessons must be learned about the impact of past decisions. Deputies will have seen pictures of many areas affected by floods, with people being removed from their homes. I witnessed this recently myself in Ennis. In low-lying areas, people were evacuated from houses that had been built only in the last few years. The property boom of recent years accelerated the problems. The country is facing serious difficulties now due to planning and what was built in the recent past.
At yesterday’s meeting of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Deputy Mansergh, said there will be some relocations of the 1,700 people who were evacuated from their houses in recent days. Many of them will not be able to return home. In the Springfield-Clonlara area of south east Clare – part of my own constituency, which is familiar to the Acting Chairman, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan – houses have been flooded by up to four feet of water. The same houses were flooded three or fours ago also. Will the situation recur in the next few years? Clare County Council and other local authorities around the country will have to deal with these problems.
The programme for Government was supposed to introduce greater accountability for the planning process. However, even though the Minister, Deputy Gormley, has put this firmly at the top of his agenda since his appointment, his partners in Government may have a different view. They have dragged their heels on the issue of proper planning, including the implementation of radical reforms. Nonetheless, reforms are required in our planning system and the Bill goes some way towards dealing with them, but not all the way.
Over the past ten years, the number of planning applications has soared. We have all seen that happen along with the birth of the commuter belts. The Government’s policy was to build as many houses as possible to earn tax revenue from stamp duty. That fed the boom, but it was a flawed policy. This country is now in the midst of a recession, which is deeper than any before.
The boom is over and the construction industry has collapsed. This is reflected in the number of planning applications that have been lodged with various local authorities. In County Clare, up to June this year, some 680 planning applications were lodged, compared to 1,750 applications in 2007. It illustrates what is happening. Planning authorities were unable to cope with the amount of applications over the past ten years. The last decade created many of the problem we must now face. Lessons have to be learned about the planning system and we must reflect on this matter.
Forecasters are predicting that Ireland’s rainfall will increase even further in the coming years. This must be taken into account for good planning. I am not just referring to the danger of building on flood plains, which has happened, but also the lack of infrastructural planning and development which is making the situation a lot worse. This is particularly the case in many rural communities which have been affected by the recent flooding. Flooding brings with it the risk of water contamination, which we have seen in many areas, including south County Galway. In my constituency the community in Bridgetown was affected by the recent floods and many people there were left without safe drinking water. A “boil notice” has been issued by the local authority for people living in the Bridgetown-O’Briensbridge area. In the constituency of the Acting Chairman, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, at Montpelier, there was a serious problem, as regards serious contamination of the water system after the recent flooding.
I have asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government many questions in relation to this, particularly with regard to the O’Briensbridge scheme, but there are other schemes around the county as well. The Minister understands that additional information is being sought by the Department, and I would appeal that these schemes be fast-tracked, now that we have learned our lesson from the past. We did not dwell sufficiently on the importance of proper sewerage schemes during the boom for existing towns and villages, and that is a great pity. Many of them lack the necessary infrastructure.
The legislation promises that the planning system will support more targeted investment in infrastructure. Up to now the system has failed miserably. Housing developments have sprung up all over the country, and no further infrastructural needs were factored into the equation. We did not have school infrastructural development for instance. Neither were there transport facilities, adequate sewerage schemes or proper green area facilities. As a result, we face many economic problems in the immediate future. This will happen in the next few years. People have to commute long distances to work. There are now more cars on the road and a great many schools face problems as regards new extensions and facilities that are still not in place.
Irish Planning Institute president, Mr. Gerry Sheeran, recently said that good planning should serve society. I ask the Minister of State whether this Bill will serve our society any better. As others have said, the Bill plans to dilute the powers of local councillors and local authorities. Are we creating another layer of bureaucracy? There were problems in the past, but Fine Gael believes we should strengthen local government. As a former county councillor, I believe we all know our territories and are aware of where people should and should not build. Councillors should have a say in proper planning. A triple lock system is in place, in any event, because ultimately it is the planners who make the official decision as regards planning.
The Bill gives the Minister more powers to direct planning issues at local level. We have seen the way this Government has managed policy in this area by feeding a false boom. Are we now to have a Minister with the power to direct local authorities as and when this is deemed necessary?
The public has only two weeks in which to inspect such ministerial directions in terms of submissions. I ask the Minister when he is reviewing the amendments to the Bill to consider that such a two-week timeframe is much too short. People would need a longer period in which to make submissions. It is not practical.
The national spatial strategy, which is often feted by Ministers as the Government’s way of ensuring balanced development, is a blueprint prepared in Dublin with very little input from local representatives. I thought that we were moving away from evolved decision making and towards more democracy at local level. However, those of us in rural areas know only too well how the policy of increased urbanisation has affected our communities and how young people in rural parishes are being denied planning permission for single houses. We have seen planning applications for dwellings at too low a level because planners have asked people to build much lower as they were infringing prescribed ridge heights. Now we see that many such houses are flooded.
Like Deputy Clune, I should like to say much more on this, particularly as regards the fact that local authorities will no longer be able to draft plans for centres with populations of fewer than 5,000. There are implications and I hope they are dealt with on Committee Stage so that we in Fine Gael may also have an input into the Bill at that stage.